A recent article in The Pathway speaks of:
- the new law in Russia which prohibits sharing the gospel unless it is at a government-approved site. Doing so anywhere else is considered terrorist activity.
- a certain province in China, students cannot go to college unless they stop going to church. Parents can also be sued for taking their children to church.
- any Christian orphanage or boarding school in Nepal that has any Christian booklet in it will be shut down. Note, this is a Christian orphanage or boarding school. And it isn’t multiple – just one book can shut them down.
Your first thought may be that these places just don’t embrace Christians at all. But the truth is that each of these nations have laws in place to protect religious liberty – just like we do in our Constitution. Whether you are Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, a Satanist, or have any other set of beliefs, you are guaranteed the right to assemble and the freedom to choose your religion. Or at least we were guaranteed. What has happened in other countries is now happening in America. Just this week, the governor of Illinois signed a bill that forces Christian doctors to provide counsel for abortions. Being pro-choice is one thing; being pro-abortion is another. In addition, religious liberty is threatened in Iowa by a recent law that will require churches to allow anyone to use any restroom.
Let me remind you that the model prayer says, “Thy Kingdom Come”… not, “Take us to heaven.” What are we doing to make God’s Kingdom come – especially in the face of adversity? Well, the challenge is that people know that Christians are to turn the other cheek, so they can prey upon us…or so they think. The truth is that we are to turn the other cheek, but we are not to turn a blind eye. Sin is sin, and we are to confront it, no matter the cost. And that leads to the passage for this post.
A Story About John
This week’s message is really about three individuals and none of them are Jesus. In fact, this is one of only two places in Mark’s account of the gospel where Jesus is not the focal part of the story. Both of those places are about John – Mark 1.2-8 and Mark 6.14-29. Rick gave some information on two of the main characters earlier, Herod Antipas and Herodias. (Herodias daughter plays a crucial role in the story, but is not one of the top three characters here.) I am going to focus on the third main character – who does nothing in this story, and yet it is very much about him. The name John. But we know him as John the Baptist, or as I like to call him, because he was not of the Baptist denomination – John the baptizer, for that is what he did. But John did more than baptize. He preached repentance. In fact, that is why he baptized. He baptized people when they repented of their sins. And that is what put John in jail.
An Unpopular Message
Near the beginning of this series, we saw that Jesus was baptized by John. Shortly afterward, John was arrested. The Greek word used there (paradidomi) means to hand over, so it has a sense of betrayal to it, much like Jesus also being handed over in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Why was he handed over? Verse 17 gives us the answer– for the sake of Herod’s wife, Herodias. Herod divorced his wife to take Herodias, who also was married. Notice John’s words in verse 18, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” As a woman, the law said that Herodias could not divorce her husband, so she used her Roman citizenship to do this. But Herod still could not have married her because of God’s command from Leviticus (18.13). An exception was granted to take a brother’s wife, but only after the husband had died! So Herodias held a grudge and wanted John dead, but Herod liked to listen to John and he feared the people (Matthew 14.5).
The statement in Mark 6.20 mentions that Herod “heard him gladly.” We should note the consistency of the parables in Mark 4. Here, Herod is like the soil sown on rocky ground. The word is received with great joy, but because a root does not develop, he falls away due to tribulation or persecution (Herod’s challenge is from his wife!). As we will soon see, Herod knew what it meant to be sorry, but he was not willing to repent.
The Vindictive Scheme
We don’t know how often John had Herod as his audience. Herod obviously knew of John prior to the arrest (v. 17 said he sent to have him seized), and still listened to him some according to verse 20. But we can surmise with some confidence that John’s message did not waver. We saw in the previous section that Herod heard him gladly, but the earlier portion of verse 20 says that Herod was also perplexed by John. Herod was baffled by what John said. Maybe it was the content, or maybe it was the reason. But Herod couldn’t understand.
Meanwhile, Herodias was still plotting. She wanted John dead, but could not order it (v19). So she waited for an opportunity, and one arose (v. 21). (Let me pause here and share that we need to take advantage of the opportunities God gives us because the enemy is eager to make the most of evil opportunities as well.) The opportunity listed here in Mark 6 is that the top brass in the land was invited to a party – Herod’s birthday party. As a gift, Herodias sent her daughter to dance, and all were pleased. The daughter is likely about 12-14 years of age based on the terminology used and the guests would be all male (women dined separately at parties such as this, hence the daughter left the room to see her mother). So this dance is likely provocative in nature which causes Herod to make a bold promise – one-half of his kingdom. (The promise was not possible to keep because as a tetrarch he had no official kingdom.) The girl ran out, got further instructions from her mother and asked for John’s head. (Incidentally, it is reported that Nero, the Roman emperor, often had the heads of his enemies brought before him. Mark’s audience are Roman believers who would have known this well.)
Before we move on, we need to see how prevalent sin was in this culture – in this family. The sin John confronted may have been about the marriage of Herod and Herodias, but the culture of sin was deep. Consider the actions of Herodias, the mother of this girl. She is scheming to have John killed and is willing to put her own daughter in front of several men as a sex object to gain what she wants.
Like our day, sin was rampant then as well. That is why Jesus came. But God promised in the Old Testament to send one to prepare the way of the Lord. The preparer was John. He laid the foundation for Messiah to enter to the scene. That was a job not anyone could do. It would take someone special. It would take someone who was committed. And it would take someone who was willing to step aside when the time was right.
A Necessary Message
Many people today preach a gospel of prosperity. Such a name it, claim it philosophy fits American culture well. God does want us to ask, and He is a giving God, and I am convinced that often I do not receive because I have not asked. But God is not a genie, and is not concerned with just giving us stuff. The true gospel reveals a reality that being faithful to God is often contrasted with worldly success. I have said countless times, success, as measured in the Bible, is faithfulness. John was faithful and it got Him killed. That is not prosperity gospel…that is true gospel.
|The entrance to John's tomb - Samaria|
|Inside the tomb of John - Samaria|
John’s yielding to God is similar to what Paul wrote to the Philippians. Philippians 3.10-11 says, “that I may know Him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection of the dead.” Again, where is the prosperity in that? The truth is that if any gospel is not true for everyone then it is not true for anyone. Paul wrote elsewhere that if anyone preaches a gospel other than what he preached, the guilty person (or even angel) should be cursed of God (Galatians 1.6-9). In that context he is talking about following the Law instead of Christ, but there is only one true gospel – that of Jesus Christ.
Why does this matter? Well, those, like John, who follow God will be honored by God. However, that often means being despised by man. Proclaiming God’s message is not what most people want to hear. Doing so got John killed. It got Jesus killed. All of the Old Testament prophets were killed for proclaiming God’s message as were the apostles and many others throughout history. So, why do it? Because Jesus commanded that we make disciples and to do so means we begin by sharing His message – as He said, teaching them to observe ALL that I have commanded. (He didn’t say teach them all that I have commanded. He said teach them to observe which means we have to be observing as well.)
And ultimately that means that we must take the attitude of John. John was immensely popular, but in the gospel written by John the apostle, a story is told of John the baptizer when he is confronted about Jesus. John begins to exalt Christ and in the middle of his teaching says, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3.30). What a great statement of humility. As popular as John was, He recognized that the One who is greater is the one who deserves the attention. At the end of this story John makes the gospel clear. “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3.36). These mirror Jesus words very well from just 20 verses earlier in the apostle’s writing (John 3.16-17).
The Victorious Servant
However, just because John knew this truth does not mean that he did not have doubts. While John was in prison, as recorded by Matthew, John sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he really was Messiah (Matthew 11). Remember, this is the same John who saw Jesus coming to be baptized and told Jesus, “I am not worthy to baptize you, you should baptize me” (Matthew 3.14, paraphrased). Now, at the end of his life, presumably days before the story we have in Mark, John wants to be sure it was all worth it. He had been humble before God. He had sacrificed his position to serve God (remember John’s father was a priest who served in the temple (see Luke 1). But now, the very man chosen by God to “prepare the way of the Lord” was having some doubts and asking, “Was this all worth it?”
Jesus response in Matthew 11 shows us something else about John – he knew the Scriptures well. Jesus responded by speaking of things Messiah would do when He came. Jesus didn’t have to say, “Yes, it’s really me.” In essence, Jesus said, “You have heard what I do, and you know what Messiah will do, so do you believe? Do you have faith?”
As John’s disciples left, Jesus continued talking and told the crowd that John was the greatest of all who have been born among women. What he meant was of those born naturally, for Jesus was birthed by a woman, but He was born of God. But Jesus statement shows honor to John. In other words, God knew John’s importance. Jesus knew John’s importance. And nearly 2000 years later, we know of John’s importance because he followed God’s chosen path for his life (a prophet), prepared the way of the Lord (by calling for repentance), and remained humble before God despite his own popularity. His reward – not so nice clothing, a strange diet, time in jail, and being beheaded. In other words, nothing like the prosperity preached by many today. But if John were to speak to us today, I have no doubts that he would tell you it was all worth it.
The Cost of Following Jesus
The story of John is a precursor of Jesus’ death. Like John, Jesus was betrayed by a friend and arrested. He would stand before this same Herod (and Pilate) neither of whom found reason to kill Him, but ordered the death because of outside pressure. And Jesus’ disciples, like John’s would carry the message forward.
But the story of John is not only a precursor of Jesus’ death, it is a reminder to all who would dare to follow Jesus. In Rick’s post this week, he shares how this story appears as a tangent (and a flashback at that). But its placement is not by accident. This story falls between the sending of the Twelve by Jesus and their return in verse 30 to Jesus. Mark does not give us the details of their journey, but this story about John serves notice that any who go for God will face danger, persecution, and even death. We must count the cost. We must reckon our fate with John just as we reckon our life with Jesus.
The JOURNEY letter for today is: Y – You.
Matthew 9.39 records Jesus as saying, “Whoever finds His life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Herod sought gain for himself. Herod played some sort of game where he tried to appease everyone in order to gain what he wanted. Instead, he lost a great deal. Herod lost:
- a political alliance with Aretas, the Nabataean King because he divorced his wife (Aretas’ daughter).
- a brother and family ties because he stole the brother’s wife (Herodias).
- favor with the Jews because he chose to kill a beloved prophet (John).
- his power and rule because he wanted the title of “king” so he was exiled (by the Roman Emperor).
- his life because though he was sorry, he would not repent.
Specifically on this last point, Matthew 6.26 says that Herod was exceedingly sorry, but sorry does not mean repentance! Sorry is often because we have been caught, not a recognition of a need to change. Consider a driver who is speeding. While speeding a highway patrolman comes over the hill and flashes lights and turns on the siren. The driver who is speeding hits the brakes and is sorry for going to fast. But the patrolman races by and it becomes obvious the real problem is elsewhere. Does the driver speed back up? A person who was sorry, likely does speed up. A person who is repentant does not. Herod was quite sorry, but not enough to make a change.
In contrast, let us quickly review John’s life. John gave up a lot for the sake of God, and thus He has gained more than we can imagine. John gave up:
- his rights as the son of a priest.
- the comforts of home (a place to live, clothes to wear, things to eat).
- his pride to confront others.
- his head because of the foolishness of others.
But John gained:
- eternal peace with God.
- a name that is still recognized around the world.
So, what are we to do with a message about a crazy king who killed a holy man because of his vindictive wife’s scheme? Well, I think the answer is that we might choose to live like John. Now, I know we are to be followers of Christ and thus should live like Him. But I would argue that John did that. In fact, as we look at the Next Steps below, I think the same words could be said of Jesus or John as well as any of the Twelve, or Paul, or countless other people throughout history. Therefore, they should certainly apply to us as well.
OPPORTUNITY: To live like John – with abandon for God. As it becomes increasingly difficult to publicly exercise our faith, living for God will draw the attention of others. Some will want to harm us, but others will be inspired. Let us be a people who inspire others for God.
Learn God’s plan for your life. He has called us all to do something. We need to discover what that something is for us and then do it.
Live what He has called you to do and proclaim His message while doing it. That plan that God has for us brings us into contact with different people in different places. But as we live out God’s purpose for our lives, we can share a similar message to all that we meet.
Love God more than yourself. Some people become popular or prominent in various ways. That was true for John, but remember John 3.30. John knew Jesus was greater and deferred to Him.
Lead others to know God by repenting of their sins and turning to Him in belief. As we saw with Herod above, being sorry is not enough. We need to repent (turn from) and then believe (turn to). As we continue to apply that principle in our lives, we need to help others do so as well.